Monday, March 23, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 3

The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the ongoing project I'm working on:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

In this project I attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."

I invite you to undertake it as well:

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

So far at least one other person has taken me up on this populist crusade. Let me know if you take it on; I'd love to see what you come up with.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 3.


His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings. John the Baptizer, born into privilege as son of a temple priest, was also a miracle child, having been born to parents who had long before given up on having children. His character here demonstrates the turbulent religious climate at the time of Jesus' ministry, as he rejected the formal religious system of his father and embraced the ascetic lifestyle ("a diet of locusts and wild honey") and fiery message of a renegade prophet: "Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!" Here he references the prophet Isaiah:

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
(Isaiah 40:4-5)

While these words allude to a great leveling in society - bad news, generally, for people who had secured power for themselves - its context is a message of comfort: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," Isaiah is instructed by God. It is worth remembering at all times that God offers good news to people who struggle and suffer; God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

TWEET THIS: God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

That John drew diverse crowds is noteworthy, both as a demonstration of the religious upheaval taking place, and as a context for Jesus' first public display of his divine mission.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded. As is often the case, sincere acts of repentance often degrade into pious performance; much as politicians who make a show of going to church, or scandalized televangelists who make a tear-filled public confession of scandalous behavior and immediately return to fundraising, such appropriations of earnest acts of commitment simultaneously buttress the public profile of people in power while also subverting the enduring value of more authentic demonstrations. John's response is telling: "Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life." As Jesus himself will affirm, John declares that public spectacles and public behavior alike are suspect; our character and commitment are revealed in small, even secret ways, far removed from any derived benefit.

“The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you." As powerful and momentous as John's ministry was, it was effectively remedial; the more proactive, constructive, directive ministry was still to come, through Jesus. "He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives." If John represents a renaissance of the prophetic tradition, with strong confrontational language leading to a renewed commitment to justice and social parity, then Jesus (at least according to John) represents revolution, a total overhaul of the social order.

Note that John sees himself, and consequently his ministry, as subordinate to Jesus. He is "a mere stagehand" for the main act to come. And when Jesus ultimately presents himself for baptism, John objects: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

“God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” Why would Jesus, self-conscious of his unique mission, accept a baptism of repentance by John, who himself admits his inferiority? A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching (and, importantly, his visions of the end) is the great leveling of Isaiah 40, the flattening of social hierarchies. Guests at the wedding banquet that represents the end of the age range from the powerful to the penniless; moreover, men and women of ill repute and little to no means made regular appearances alongside Jesus at meals throughout the Gospels. It isn't the pecking order in this baptism that is important to Jesus; it's "God's work [of] putting things right" that matters. In this respect, both John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are playing roles in an epic story; their vocation is fulfilled not by achieving status but by playing their part well.

“This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus may be playing a part in a story, but he is the central character in it. He will have his credentials repeatedly challenged by powerful people in scenes to come, but here his credentials are clear: God himself participates in Jesus' baptism, which becomes effectively an ordination, a king's anointing:

"You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession. ...
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction.
(Psalm 2:7-10)

TWEET THIS: Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but bad news for those who have achieved power and status.

This first public declaration of Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but once again it is bad news for those who have achieved power and status, often on the backs of people they were sworn to serve and protect. Jesus' anointing is a warning to "you rulers of the earth": they, like everyone else, are subject to the ultimate Sovereign God of creation, and their rejection of Jesus - and the social order he represents - will be counted as treason, and dealt with accordingly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dangerbooks! Vulnerable Faith by Jamie Arpin-Ricci

I had the privilege, some time ago, of editing Jamie Arpin-Ricci's book The Cost of Community. I had been introduced to Jamie by my friend Adrianna Wright, and we had the opportunity to travel to Haiti together on a learning mission hosted by Haiti Partners and funded by InterVarsity Press, which had recently published another great book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle, by another good friend, Kent Annan. Publishing is not always so friendly, so familiar, but when it is, it's particularly rewarding. Jamie has remained a friend (at a distance, as he lives in community in Manitoba and doesn't venture out much), and so I was honored to be invited to review his latest book, Vulnerable Faith, this time published by Paraclete Press.

Jamie gets right to it in this book, challenging a common but distressing element of contemporary Christian faith: "cheap faithfulness."

Cheap faithfulness is taking the name of Christ as our identity without requiring the renunciation of self and selfish ends. It is seeking full intimacy with God yet giving little, if any, commitment. It is about negotiating terms with Jesus, as though we have anything at all to bring to the table. It is an abuse of love no better than trying to achieve the pleasures of intimacy by using another person for cheap sex. (Vulnerable Faith, p. 22)
Cheap faithfulness is only one manifestation of a larger crisis in the human condition, one that causes us to lean toward cheapness in all our relationships and away from the more risky, but more rewarding, relationships with God and others characterized by vulnerability and authenticity. Vulnerable Faith is, essentially, a conversation about the nature of truth and our essential distance from it at all times, thanks to our regrettable finiteness. A fear of death inspires in us a sense of self-preservation that puts us at odds with one another, at odds with God. The best we can hope for, as this sense of self-preservation lives in us, is what Scott Peck calls "pseudo-community," a kind of conspiracy of pretense underlying all our relationships, and ultimately a self-deception that renders us other even from ourselves. Jamie demonstrates this problem by looking at the life of none other than St. Patrick, the manliest of saints.

If you would put half as much effort into being who you could truly become, rather than trying to be who you think everyone else wants you to be, you could become a man people would follow. (Calpurnius, father of St. Patrick, to his son, aged sixteen, p. 36)
So few of us are our true selves; perhaps this is why so few of us are saints. To be a saint is to be other than what we are, in our striving, self-protection and self-deception. But in another sense, to be a saint is to be finally what we were created to be, what we are underneath our own fortresses of artifice and pretense. We have lost sight of ourselves; Only God can understand us now. Only God can save us. And how he saves us? We're not going to like it.

"The cross is an instrument of death" (pp. 29-30). Taking up the cross of Christ involves the emptying of our lives of all pretense to be replaced with the Truth. The embrace of truth is not a conceptual, intellectual thing, but an embrace of Jesus who is the truth and who gives his life for us and calls us into a daily martyrdom from which we are resurrected as better, humbler, more compassionate, saintlier versions of ourselves. Jamie calls this the "martyrological" life. "Because Jesus embraced this emptiness and because it glorifies God," Jamie assures us, "it is not a punitive emptying, but a meaningful and hopeful one, promising that something far greater will fill us" (p. 93): vulnerability, authenticity, humility, born of the grace and truth of Christ.

In this respect, the cross is not just an event - the salvific work of Jesus - it is also an ethic. We often think of dying to ourselves as living self-sacrificially, and that's a part of it. But as Jamie explores in this book, dying to ourselves is also more existential than that, more fundamental than that. After all, we can live self-sacrificially and still be incredibly pretentious, even violently judgmental. But dying to ourselves? This is the type of martyrological life uncovered in, of all things, the recovery movement. We die to ourselves by admitting our incapacity to kill it at life. We acknowledge the thing we love, cling to, the thing that is slowly killing us but that we have entrusted our security to. Alcohol, food, gambling, sex, sin, whatever, these are presenting problems of an underlying issue: our fear of our own mortality, our own vulnerability. We are on an undiverting path toward death and we can't handle it. We are contributing to our own demise and it's freaking us out.

By the grace of God we are delivered of this fear of death (as if we are ever delivered from the fear of death without first going through it), emptied of our pretensions and self-deceptions (as though we are ever rendered invulnerable to such things). On the far side of the cross we are no longer diverted from the mission of God, which has as its goal a world rightly ordered under the sovereignty of a good God of love, with all of creation demonstrating loving mutuality without pretense or self-protection. The poor among us are no longer "the poor" but brothers and sisters who need our help; the struggling among us are no longer objects of our impatient pity but those we struggle with. While most of Jamie's book is personalized, it is never individualized: indeed, he demonstrates very effectively that reconciliation between people is prior to reconciliation with God, according to the gospel of the Bible.

This isn't works-righteousness; it's the nature of our healing. Jamie tells the story of a husband who was confronted for flirting with another woman; his wife's cross to bear was neither to silently endure this indignity nor to cut ties and forge a new life - either of which is commonly prescribed in our highly transactional, hyper-individualized age. Her cross to bear was to leave her husband for a time, to endure the embarrassment and complication of separation, and to pray for her husband to die to himself. And she and her husband, though separated from each other, were accompanied in their cross-bearing by their supportive community. This was a communal challenge, and though in this instance it ended tragically, it still demonstrates the fundamentally plural nature of the Christian life. "The relationship," Jamie observes, borrowing from the sponsor relationship in Alcoholics Anonymous, "is not about positional authority but dynamic mutuality." To be Christian is, above all, to not be alone: we are led by a God who promises to never leave us or forsake us, but we are also bound to one another by our crosses.

Jamie's portrait of Patrick and his transformation, from spoiled child of privilege to patron saint of Ireland, is insightful and arresting. Not only is Patrick's story dramatic enough to bear telling, it's also existentially significant: there is more to his story than the facts--the people, the place, the things. Patrick is a saint, but he is also us. And this is both bad news and good: We are as vulnerable as was young Patrick, but we are also as capable of great things as he, as available to transformation as he. We are us, but we are also, somewhere in the DNA of us, saints.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Rise of the Remedial Christian

I attended a church service recently (bully for me) as part of our ongoing quest to find a "church home" in Colorado Springs. The search here is something akin to going to the grocery store for cereal when you don't really know what you have a taste for: Colorado Springs is the land of evangelical ecclesiastical overchoice, which, I assure you, can be paralyzing and perplexing.

(My friend Sean Gladding, on loan to the United States from England, once complained about the cereal aisle: "How many combinations of white flour and sugar do we really need?!?" He's a foreigner, folks; cut him some slack.)

My antennae may be up a little higher these days as I visit these churches; I notice little quirks and tics of each preacher, I scrutinize song choice, I look for typos in the bulletins. Admittedly, I'm not my best self in these moments. But at this particular church service I noticed something interesting: the pastor started to say something, caught himself, took a deep breath, and went for it:

"I think ... it's possible, actually ... that Jesus ... might have ... maybe ... been a progressive?"

Nobody stormed out of the sanctuary, to my knowledge, and I think he still has his job - even here where "progressive" seems to be a euphemism for "heretic." Seriously. I was forewarned by a friend never to say anything nice about President Obama. Anything. Even "Nice suit, Mr. President" requires a pronounced tone of sarcasm.

I've only scratched the surface of the broad swath of Colorado Springs churches, so I'm sure progressive is not a universal byword here. But it did strike me how scandalous a mere word could be, how damaging a label it can become.

Meanwhile, I recently read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr's letter from Birmingham Jail for a video project some friends of mine put together for Martin Luther King Day. (You can watch the fifty-minute video here.) The portion I read was in praise of my wife's great uncle Ralph McGill and other "white moderates," whom King acknowledged had taken brave stands against segregation and for the reconciliation of the South. "They are still all too few in quantity," King wrote, "but they are big in quality." It struck me at the time (you can read my reflections here) that King didn't call these folks "white radicals" or "white progressives"; he referred to them as "white moderates." This is significant, I think: championing the civil rights of another human being isn't a radical or even progressive stance; it's fundamentally moderate, almost the least a person can do.

And then I went to a brief conference to discuss the church's relationship to the millennial generation, which was described at one point as a mosaic of "nomads, prodigals and exiles." All nouns. All labels. All fixed identities which can quickly degrade into caricature. It's saying a lot about a person to say that they are a nomad, or an exile, or a progressive, for that matter, It says a lot about a person to call them (even to call yourself) a conservative, or an evangelical. It simultaneously sums a person up and says more about them than is possible to know.

When adjectives (such as "progressive" or "conservative") become nouns, beware. When words are applied to human beings that are better applied to abstract concepts (such as "exile"), we are in danger of abandoning our humanity and converting ourselves into abstractions.

Abstractions can be helpful, as means to an end, and so conversations about progressivism and conservatism, nomadicism and the like, and how they are embraced and engaged among various demographics can yield helpful insights. But people are not abstractions: they are not means to an end. They are not even ends, really; they are active subjects, in constant flux. If anything, they are middles, or beginnings.

In any case, to quote the great Ferris Bueller, "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself." Good point there. We are more than the isms that enthrall us, and we should be wary of where our isms take us. A progressive or a conservative becomes a caricature to her ideological opposites: to the progressive, all conservatives are probably racist, xenophobic, homophobic tyrants; to the conservative, if you're a progressive, you must have been at some point dropped on your head.

But more than that, a person who has been absorbed into an ism will find herself with strange bedfellows, uncomfortable allies, Facebook friends who demand explanations but are without excuse. Who hasn't winced at the careless comment of an ideological ally, knowing that we're somehow going to have to excuse or defend them for saying it?

We are tempted to surrender our identities to our isms, and once we've done so, we've succumbed to idolatry and become accessories to all kinds of evil.

The kingdom of God will allow no isms. There are Jews and Greeks in the kingdom of God, but there is no Jew nor Greek. There are men and women in the kingdom of God, but there is no male or female. There is no slave or free in the kingdom of God, because slavery exists only under the auspices of our isms, and our isms have no place in the new creation. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for our isms to accompany us into the kingdom of God.

That's why I propose a new category of Christian, one that abandons the artificial polarities of conservatism and progressivism, which are far too often partners in pointlessness. Please join me in welcoming ... the rise of the remedial Christian!

There's nothing magical about the word remedial, but as a modifier of Christian I like it very much. It suggests what Dr. King declares: that submitting and subjecting ourselves to the right thing, even in the face of hostility or marginalization or ridicule or violence, is nothing terribly special. It's not especially progressive to say that all human beings are vested with the same God-given rights. It is at best moderate but in fact remedial, almost the least we can do.

Similarly, it's not especially conservative to acknowledge the fundamental responsibility of each person for their own decisions, though it's claimed as a tenet of conservatism. Such an idea is remedial, roughly akin to stating the obvious.

Remedial implies something basic, so basic that it's easily overlooked and often undervalued. It implies something that resolves a problem not by creating something new but by going back to the beginning. "This is a football" is remedial coaching; with it Vince Lombardi kicked off each season with a reminder that the basics are what's important, and everything else builds on it.

Remedial has etymological connections to remedy, which implies healing, relief. Ferris's dad, believing him to be sick, encouraged him to "wrap a hot towel around your head ... then make yourself some soup, get a nap." Not the cure for cancer, but then again, Ferris didn't have cancer. It was a remedial prescription, and everytime a Gen-Xer feels a fever coming on, it's one of the first things that comes to mind.

Remedial is a good thing in the same way that reform (a la "Reformation") is a good thing, in the same way that repentance (as in "Repent! For the kingdom of God is near!") is a good thing. But in the same way as repentance, remedial is nothing to brag about. "Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me" is a statement of remedial faith: its author recognized that grace is not an achievement but a gift. We can't be boastful or judgmental when we're being remedial, when we understand ourselves as remedial. It just doesn't sound right. It's hard to pull off blustery entitlement on a news show panel when the caption under your name reads "Remedial Christian."

Now, I recognize that what I'm proposing is a little silly, but then again, silly proposals aren't necessarily bad. Consider when Naaman, a general of the army of Aram, found himself leprous. He sought help from the prophet Elisha, who told him to take seven baths in the river Jordan. Naaman was offended at the lack of complexity in this proposed remedy, but his servant challenged him:

“Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”
Remedial, yes, but it worked: Naaman took seven baths and came out completely healed. Imagine how much healing might be available to us if we set aside our commitments to complexity, our idolatry of our isms, and just allowed ourselves and each other to be what we are already: basic people, all trying to figure it out together.

Enjoy it while it lasts, though. As soon as we embrace "remedial Christianity," we'll start crafting a new idol: remedialism. God help us, every one.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

A Prayer for Super Bowl Sunday by Walter Brueggemann

Leave it to Walter Brueggemann to have both the moxie and the skills to sacralize Super Bowl Sunday, which he does in his 2008 collection Prayers for a Privileged People. "It is no challenge to me," he writes, "to rethink myself along with other privileged believers, even if our privilege tends to work against openheartedness." It's no challenge to him because he recognizes that he is a person of privilege, enjoying benefits accruing to his ethnicity, gender and social class that were woven into the cultural fabric years, decades, even centuries before he was born. That's all well and good, but what could the Super Bowl possibly have to do with social privilege?

Read on and find out. If you have a little moxie, you might even pray it.

* * *

The world of fast money,
and loud talk,
and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.

We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.

We show up, most of us, for such a circus,
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.

And you - today like every day -
you govern and watch and summon;
you glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.

TWEET THIS: Our life consists not in things we consume but in neighbors we embrace. Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People

And around you gather today, as every day,
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift is more than "super,"
overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.

The day of preoccupation with creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.

Give us some distance from the noise,
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.

Be our good neighbor that we may practice
your neighborly generosity all through our needy neighborhood.